Higher Education

intellectual climate and the "creative class"

I just read through Richard Florida’s Flight of the Creative Class. It’s an interesting read. I realize Florida has been targeted by both the left and the right. His argument resonates in many ways with Friedman’s flat world or Pink’s whole new mind. I don’t have much to offer on the overall validity of this argument except the following. First, I agree that we are in the midst of a shift in economics that is closely related to work of people the fall into Florida’s definition of a "creative class." Second, my intuition (for what that’s worth) leads me to agree with the contention that members of the creative class seek out jobs and cities where they feel free to express themselves and where there is a high level of acceptance for different people.

My interest here though is thinking about what Florida’s theories might suggest for a college community like Cortland’s, especially in terms of "intellectual climate" (an issue of ongoing concern on campus). Not surprisingly, Florida (an academic himself), like Friedman and others, points to the importance of education–primary, secondary, and tertiary–for creating a "creative society." Universities are one of the characteristics of cities that make them desirable to creative types. Universities research new technologies as well as offering access to technologies; they attract talented people (both faculty and students); and they teach tolerance for different people (the there "T’s" that Florida discusses). However, smaller colleges face different kinds of challenges.

In reading Florida, I think that if Cortland wants to create a more vibrant "intellectual climate," it must do so by attracting a more diverse and talented pool of students. Of course, everyone at Cortland already knows this. We all are aware of the homogeneity of our student population, not only in conventional demographic terms but also in their concentration in education majors. Florida does offer some advice on building communities that are more attractive to the creative class and students who might wish to enter it. Some of this advice might apply to the campus; other advice might apply to the larger Cortland community, which could certainly benefit from it.

Now you might look at Cortland and see a burned out manufacturing burg in the middle of diary country. And you’d be right. However, 30 minutes down Rt. 13 is Ithaca, NY. Ithaca has a vast, underemployed, well-educated labor pool that’s just waiting to be tapped. Ithaca real estate prices are shooting through the roof, but Cortland is very afforable and easily within commuting distance. Cortland needs to demonstrate that it will welcome "Ithaca types" and build the kind of downtown that will appeal to members of the creative class.

These same intiatives would benefit the college. The kind of students we want to attract are the kind that would be energized by a diverse downtown. Right now, we try to keep the college students away from the downtown, b/c it’s just one bar after another. Of course they go down there anyway and drink too much, b/c Cortland doesn’t offer much of anything else to do! No doubt, college students everywhere drink. Venues for live music, a variety of good restaurants, hip retail. That’s what you need.

Then on the campus you need to emphasize the opportunities for creative interaction. Our intellectual climate intiative has focused on a speaker series. That’s fine, but I think it misses the main target. I don’t think our students are especially interested in more opportunities to be the audience for a lecture. I don’t think that talented students we want to attract are especially interested. They desire opportunities for self-expression. They want to encounter new and different things.

I realize that in moving in that direction we might scare off some of our current base of students. Our students are often intellectually timid, a fact that is distrubing when it seems that their timidity is what has led them to decide to become teachers! I don’t want to turn away such students but help them to grow by placing them in the context of bolder and more dynamics students that we might attract by changing our tactics somewhat.

One reply on “intellectual climate and the "creative class"”

You raise some very good points about Cortland Alex. Even in Oneonta, another SUNY small town, the “climate” is more conducive to a creative class surge. Harwick’s presence helps and there’s also the downstate urge to go country which has brought some more sophisticated types to Oneonta over the years…rumor has it that the hills around the town still harbor some communal experiments and alternative lifestyle folks.
I agree re: the lecture series. I think it’s terrific for faculty. Students find it less interesting. I think the same is true of Scholars Day. I think the committee might want to survey students and gather some information about what they would like to see a committee so named sponsor.
Re: intellectual timidity. That’s surely an accurate description of many of our students…and significantly…many of those are students who want to be teachers. Public schools are not often places where intellectual temerity is welcomed and certainly not nourished. Our students know that all too well. They’re good readers of the institutions they want to enter. Guess we can’t fault them for that! KES


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